INSIGHTS: Leanne Ungar

Producing Leonard Cohen's recent live album, "Field Commander
Cohen," recorded in 1979, and a new studio album "Ten New Songs"

Interviewed by Mel Lambert in April 2001

Leanne UngarLeonard Cohen is a unique combination of seer and sage; his poetry, song lyrics and prose writing have inspired audiences for three decades. Cohen's debut album, "The Songs Of Leonard Cohen," was released at the end of 1967, since which time he has recorded eight additional studio albums - "Songs From A Room" (1969), "Songs Of Love and Hate" (1971), "New Skin For The Old Ceremony" (1973), "Death Of A Ladies" Man (1977), "Recent Songs" (1979), "Various Positions" (1984), "I'm Your Man" (1988) and "The Future" (1992) - a pair of live albums - "Live Songs" (1972) and "Cohen Live" (1994) - and two hits collections - "Best Of Leonard Cohen" (1975) and "More Best Of" (1997). (In addition to recordings, Cohen has published 11 books, including the 1963 novel "The Favorite Game" and 1966's classic, "Beautiful Losers.")
   His recent live album, "Field Commander Cohen" was produced by Leanne Ungar, who has worked with Cohen for several years. Their association dates back to the early Seventies, while she was working at Sound Ideas, New York. In addition to working as an assistant on sessions with James Brown, The Brecker Brothers and Manhattan Transfer, Leanne also assisted on "New Skin For The Old Ceremony" with producer John Lissauer and engineer Rick Rowe. After working at Le Studio, Canada, in 1975, Leanne returned to New York, and secured a job at A&R Recording, working on sessions with Cat Stevens, Loudon Wainwright and Janis Ian. Going freelance in '77, Leanne worked on more Janis Ian sessions, plus film scores with Mason Daring, and a series of records and a movie with Laurie Anderson.
   Leanne started working again with Leonard Cohen in 1984. The live "Field Commander Cohen" album was the fifth she has engineered for the artist: "Various Positions," in 1984, which she recorded and mixed; 1987's "I'm Your Man," recorded by Leanne and others, but mixed by her; 1993's "The Future," recorded and mixed by Leanne (the single, "Closing Time," was co-produced by Leanne and Leonard Cohen); 1995's "Cohen Live," recorded by Leanne, mixed by Bill Schnee, co-produced by Leanne and Bob Metzger. Cohen's new studio album, "Ten New Songs," was engineered and mixed by Leanne Ungar, and produced by with Sharon Robinson.

These two albums represent an unique juxtaposition. "Field Commander Cohen" was recorded at the former Hammersmith Odeon, West London, and Brighton's Dome Theatre during the late-Seventies, while "Ten New Songs" is coming together as we speak. Why go back to these older tapes?
Yes, "Field Commander Cohen" has an interesting pedigree. Every few years Leonard looks through these archive tapes to see if there is any live material that might be appropriate for release. And also we make sure that the tapes are still playable - and maybe think about archiving the analog material to a more permanent digital medium. When we came to audition the multitrack tapes from those English dates, we weren't sure what condition they were in. It turned out that they were in excellent shape.
   What we found was a collection of 24-track reels of [3M] Scotch 250 - thank God, because other brands of tape would have broken down by now - that were recorded by Henry Lewy at the Hammersmith Odeon [December 4, 5 and 6, 1979] and Brighton Dome Theatre [December 15]. The tapes were Dolby-A encoded - we had to look around to find that many channels for rental, which got me thinking seriously about archiving.
   While listening to these tapes the arrangements seemed to line up with the current interest in world music, with gypsy violin and oud. The tracks still sounded so fresh and interesting to us, that we thought they were asking to be released. And the project pretty much followed on from there. We had about three hours of material from each night; most songs repeated at all of the concerts, but with slightly different set orders. The tracks were beautifully recorded by Henry Lewy, who had recorded and co-produced "Recent Songs" with Leonard Cohen and is well known for his work on several Joni Mitchell albums. The Odeon and Dome sessions involved two different recording setups and two different track arrangements.

Where did you transfer the material from 24-track analog?
At Westlake Studios [West Hollywood, CA] to [Digidesign] Pro Tools format. I started with a just couple of songs, so that I could work out my Pro Tools templates, test the quality of the conversion, and make sure it was all compatible when I got it back to Still Life Studio [Leonard Cohen's private LA facility]. I transferred everything across flat at unity gain because I didn't know what was coming along, and could make all the adjustments in the Mac G4 [workstation]. I used Pro Tools 888 [analog-to-digital] converters, which sounded okay; I didn't think Apogee Model 8000 converters, for example, would represent a tremendous jump in quality, given the additional rental cost. I was happy with the quality; the Pro Tools recordings sounded big, silky and clean. I only transferred versions of songs that I knew we would need - probably 16 in all, of which we used 12 on the album. On some songs I transferred several versions from different nights, thinking that I might come across more details when I got to work on the tracks.
   I pretty much put up the faders [to monitor the tracks during the transfer], and didn't bother with differences between drums and keyboard mikings. When I got [the drives] back to Still Life for editing and mixing on our 64-voice MixPlus Pro Tools [with two TDM farm cards], I had some sorting out to do to make the track layouts consistent from song to song. As I said, these were beautifully recorded tracks but, over the course of an evening - from quiet ballads to strong rockers- there were major level differences. I was concerned on some songs about dynamic range and had to normalize them and then digitally bring up the levels.
   Before I transferred we were listening to rough mixes made straight off the board the night of the concerts. Some rough mixes were heavy in bass and drums and I couldn't hear everything, so I transferred several insurance versions of those songs. The first four songs from the first night of recording didn't make it to tape due to technical difficulties - and song #5 was "Field Commander Cohen," which opens the album. 

What fixes needed to be made to these tracks?
Where we could, I took an entire track, and did only minor touch ups. My philosophy was to pick the brilliant performance, and then sift through the track listening for parts that were keeping my ear from focusing on that brilliance. If I came across anything that startled me, or annoyed me - took me out of the "moment" - then I would look for ways to remedy it. Maybe go to a different night or another concert for a note or a phrase. There was surprising little to do, however.Leanne Ungar
   The vocal tracks were very good. I didn't want to just put [Antares Audio Technologies] Auto-Tune across the whole vocal track, because as a note changes pitch and AT pulls it back, you lose inflection. I used PitchDoctor [a TDM plug-in from Antares Audio Technologies] for Pro Tools on selected notes. It allowed me to place the center of a moving note wherever I want it and then it tracks the curve as it rises and lower; in other words, it lets a bend be slid into place. It sounds very subtle.
   Each concert was pretty consistent. On a given night, a given mood prevailed. On a quiet night the tempos were a little slower and everything was a little more subdued; people were not as "present" in their microphones. On a loud night it was the reverse. I faded to silence between tracks so as not to give the illusion that this was a single concert from beginning to end. After all, the album took place over four night at two different venues. It would have been too contrived to let the track runs continuously into one another.
   The band [Passenger, comprising bassist Roscoe Beck, keyboardist Bill Ginn, drummer Steve Meador, saxophonist, flutist Paul Ostermayer and electric guitarist Mitch Watkins, plus vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson, with John Bilezikjian with oud and mandolin, and violist Raffi Hakopian] was brilliant! Passenger had played together in Austin, Texas, and were introduced to Leonard by Henry Lewy. Leonard isn't much of a "time-guy" - his style is fluid and moving - and the band was able to flow with him as a single entity.
   One of the reasons that the album sounds so great is because Leonard uses low stage volumes. The monitors are extremely quiet, so there is little bleed through into the stage mics. We didn't have that hollow sound that results when the monitors leak into everything.

All the editing, comping and trial mixing was done in Pro Tools. Do you use a Pro Controller?
No, just a mouse. I have worked with a control surface on past projects, but was surprised how little I used it. I prefer a mouse. You can draw [level] profiles over the track, which seems very intuitive. With Pro Tools, I love being able to see things as well as hear them - to draw a level changes and make those impossible edits and cross fades. Comping elements together, automating EQ, and so on. It used to be that if you wanted a different EQ or effect on a chorus, for example, then you needed to split the vocal track and bring it up on two faders. And then whip the faders up and down at the appropriate points. Now it is all in Pro Tools. I don't miss those old analog days for those types of problems.

The live album was mixed by Bill Schnee at Schnee Studios, North Hollywood. Why didn't you mix it yourself?
Certainly, I was capable of mixing it myself, but Bill is a genius. We first used a remix engineer on "Cohen Live" and it worked out very well to have an extra pair of ears at that point. Basically, producing and then mixing an album is a lot to handle. I'd worked with Bill on "Cohen Live" - he will probably mix this new album - so, "Why not?" We could afford it, so it let me sit back and listen objectively, rather than being too close to the mix. 
   I had made EQ, compression, reverb and panning effects in Pro Tools the way I heard it, and handed the tracks to Bill Schnee. Who promptly took all the effects off [laughs] and brought each track up individually through his analog console. Bill added some audience tracks, and after he had the vocal EQed the way he liked it, hand de-essed it inside Pro Tools, by riding level on the consonants. [ML Note: Schnee Studio features a custom-built, all-discrete consoles, using modified Hardy 990 amplifiers, B&B EQ sections and a tube line amp across the stereo buss. According to Bill Schnee who, with Toby Foster and Steve Haselton, designed and built the mixer, it contains very few amplifiers in the signal path. "As a result, it is one of the most open, natural desks I've ever heard."]

Could Bill monitor what you had done in Pro Tools, as a guide?
Yes, there were a couple of things that I had done in the Pro Tools Session. Firstly, there were "Mix Niceties" that he was able to do better in analog. And then there were certain automated EQs and rides that had to do with tricky edits - for example, a saxophone solo with a phrase from a different night that had to be blended using EQ and level changes. We left the [Pro Tools] automation on that track so that levels and EQ could be implemented. I gave it to Bill as a composite track.

Let's move to the new album, "Ten New Songs." which you are currently completing. What is the focus?
Leonard is always working in several mediums: books, poems, songs, and so on. He put out a book of poetry two years ago, and turned his attention to a new album project. Originally he was thinking of reading some of his poems, and it mushroomed into the current project.
   This new album in a collaborate effort with Sharon Robinson, who in 1979 was a singer in his band, along with Jennifer Warnes. Sharon is a well known songwriter, and a Grammy winner for "New Attitude." In 1987, Sharon wrote a song with Leonard: "Everybody Knows," which went on to be covered fairly heavily by many artists. In 1993 they co-wrote "Waiting for the Miracle," which ended up in a few movies. Sharon and Leonard collaborated on all 10 songs we are working on for the album; Sharon is also handling the arrangements.
   What we are getting on these tracks is a very intimate and beautiful sound. The tracks are mainly sequenced samples; there's a little bit of guitar. Sharon creates the tone and feel while she writes the chords, taking cues from the lyrics. They pass the tracks back and forth a lot, adjusting the key, tempo, and musical elements in the song. Leonard has a Technics SX-KN6000 synth with a built-in sequencer, which contains a tremendous library of ethnic instrument sounds that he uses for experimentation.
   The basic tracks are sequenced at Sharon's home studio. The next thing recorded is the vocal, which dictates the direction the song will go after that. Later, we will go out to Westlake or Capitol, and overdub as required. The songs seem to he hanging together as a collection, with different moods and textures. Leonard is meticulous about the emotional and poetic aspects of a song. Often the song changes as we develop; as he maybe "discovers" the song. Leonard constantly tinkers with the lyric as he finishes a vocal; maybe changing the words and re-recording all or part of the track. He might even complete a song - it happened the other day - and then reject it because it doesn't work for him.

Studio rack

Custom tracking and monitoring rig at Leonard Cohen's personal-use studio includes a Mackie CR104 mixer with returns from a Tascam DA-78HR digital eight-track for recording different vocal takes. A Neumann U-67 mic is connected to a Neve Model 1272 mic pre-amp and then patched directly into spare DA-78 tracks.

I see that you have set up a microphone here for Leonard. He records his own vocals?
On this album, yes. He likes to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning, wander out into the studio and murmur into the microphone. But he is quite adept with recording hardware. We have set up a Mackie [CR104] mixer with returns from a Tascam DA-78HR [digital eight-track] so that Leonard can record different vocal takes. We premix his headphone mix and preset his levels. Normally, he records against a simple backing track - bass, drums, synth chords - using a [Neumann] U-67 plugged into a Neve 1272 mic pre-amplifier and then patched directly into spare tracks on the DA-78. He is extremely computer literate, but doesn't want to learn the Pro Tools program; he prefers to stay with his familiar tape setup. We record everything at 24-bit on the DA-78, and then bounce it over digitally to Pro Tools against timecode for comping.

Do you think that you have a specific production style?
I don't think I have a philosophy - simply to facilitate the creative process and capture the best tracks I can. Call it what you will, I basically take care of the technical details, and am available for consultation on creative areas. I sit behind the console and offer advice on what sounds good and what doesn't, if asked. If there is an other producer in the room, then I would keep quite and let that person give direction. Leonard has his own vision of what he wants. During the mix he is extremely involved; he knows in great detail what is going to work to create the mood. When the mood is not working he knows instantly. Sometimes he'll know what he is after specifically - like more bass - but sometimes he doesn't know what needs to be done; just that he doesn't like the current mix.
  For example, on the song "Closing Time," from "The Future," we had a gorgeous track that we worked on for quite a while. We brought in new musicians and did overdubs; a great arrangement that I was absolutely in love with. And Leonard said: "Darling it's not working." So he disappeared for a week, played into his synthesizer at a much brighter tempo with new lyrics - it was almost another song. The "new" version on the song was great hit for him in Canada. So what do I know?

Do you think that your gender impacts the way you work?
I have never been a man so it's difficult to know what the difference would be. And it's hard to separate my own individuality from the sex within my own individuality. In other words, I am a quiet, intense listener, as opposed to an auteur who comes in and says it is going to be the same way as my last hit. Looking into my character, I do have a certain empathy and sensitivity and willingness to understand what needs to be done - and maybe compromise when it is necessary. If you are going to spend time locked in a small room with someone, you had better get along with them.
   I know men that have these qualities, too. In this industry there have been people who have wanted to work with me because I am a woman, and there have been people who didn't want to work with me because I was a woman. People who remembered me because I was different. I think it works both ways; it is an aspect of individually, like anything else. And it's not necessarily a harder job for a woman than a man - producing is just a plain old hard job!

A Short Biography:

After an upbringing that included classical training on the flute and college in Minneapolis, Leanne Ungar moved to New York to study dance. Visiting a studio with friends, she fell in love with recording, and started her production career in 1972, working at Sound Ideas, New York. She worked as an assistant on two James Brown records, plus sessions for The Brecker Brothers, Manhattan Transfer, and her first experience with Leonard Cohen.
    She moved to Le Studio, Morin Heights, Canada, as a full engineer in 1975, and worked on the first of several projects with Cat Stevens. Returning to New York in 1976, she secured a job at A&R Recording, again working with Cat Stevens, plus Loudon Wainwright and Janis Ian. Going freelance in '77, Leanne worked on more Janis Ian sessions, plus film scores with Mason Daring, plus a series of records and a movie with Laurie Anderson.
    Leanne started working again with Leonard Cohen in 1984; the new album - "Ten New Songs" - is the sixth she has engineered for the artist. Other projects include three records with Holly Cole, and several film scores with composer Cliff Martinez.

Photographs (c)2001 Elizabeth Annas/Photosensations. All rights reserved

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